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LDS on verge of making more history

An international spotlight the LDS Church has enjoyed during the year is expected to fade as activities celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Mormon pioneer migration to the West draw to a close.

But the year isn't quite over yet. And President Gordon B. Hinckley suggests newsworthy announcements will emerge during the church's 167th Semiannual General Conference this weekend as the focus on the church shifts from a celebration of its past to the work that is ahead.President Hinckley said he plans to address the church's humanitarian work Sunday. On Saturday evening, he has an announcement planned during an address to the church's priesthood.

"We're doing some things that we haven't said much about but we've spent a lot of time on - I think something of great significance in terms of our people," he said during an interview Wednesday.

Whatever the announcement might be, it is postured to be the punctuation mark on a year where The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has had a heightened public profile.

Much of the publicity focused on this summer's re-creation of the wagon train Brigham Young led that brought the first Mormon pioneer settlers into the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. The uniqueness of the event and President Hinckley's availability to the media combined to bring unprecedented attention to the church.

"I think we have had a wonderful year," President Hinckley said. "I think the whole church has been awakened to a realization of the strength and power and vision and faith of those who have gone before us. It has had a very salutary effect on members of the church. It has been a good thing, and I'm grateful that it's turned out so well."

The church's 19th-century history is an integral part of the story of America's westward expansion. Colonies established by Brigham Young stretched hundreds of miles north of the church's headquarters in Salt Lake City and as far south as Mexico. Mormon pioneers sailed around the cape to the Bay area of California ahead of prospectors who would drive their wagons to the West Coast in the gold rush of 1849.

"The commemoration of the arrival of our people in this valley has been dramatic. It's been newsworthy in every respect. The wagon train that has come across from Winter Quarters (Iowa) to this valley has been a dramatic thing. Many other things have been dramatic. It's a significant occasion - 150 years of pioneering, really. So there's been a news opportunity there.

"I don't suppose we'll have quite as much (attention) again for some while, but I would hope the press would always have an interest in us. I think we have something to offer - something of significance to offer the people of the nation and the world - and I would hope that they would be receptive to those things," President Hinckley said.

One of the first things President Hinckley did after being ordained as president of the church March 12, 1995, was hold a press conference. Reporters have found him to be accessible since and were well-primed to seek him out for interviews during the sesquicentennial season. As the church's leader, he considers news interviews to be part of his responsibility.

"It's an interesting thing to speak to the press. Of course, you always wonder how you did and how it's going to turn out, and so on. But you just do your best and recognize that these are people who are trying to do their job and do it well. They are conscientious. They're sincere. They want to do the right thing, and it's your responsibility to make that as easy for them as you can," he said.

"It's a little hard to explain some of our doctrines to a newspaper reporter. And you run a risk of being misquoted, and so on. But unless you run a risk, you get no result whatsoever. So you step forward and do the best you can and take a chance on the outcome."

The Book of Mormon and church doctrines of living prophets, continuing revelation and eternal marriage are among facets of the church that set it apart from other Christian faiths. Those differences are often the focus of both outsiders' writings and of the church's own proselyting efforts.

Recent efforts by the church to foster a greater awareness of the common ground it shares with people of other faiths have drawn reactions President Hinckley has come to expect but disagree with.

"A number of reporters have asked me, have said something along these lines: `It looks as if you're moving in the direction of mainstream America.' My response is simply this: We're not doing things essentially different than we have ever done. Maybe mainstream America, as it is looking for higher values, is moving a little closer to us."

Still, the church does have its detractors. "We've always had them. We have them today. We'll always have them," President Hinckley said. "As this church grows, inevitably there will be more of them who will look for something here and something there to speak ill about. But they don't last long. They walk across the stage of life and play out their little part and pretty soon they're gone and forgotten and the church moves on.

"You don't get too excited about them. You love them. You try to help them. I feel sorry for them. I'd like to extend an outreached hand to them and help them and lift them and give them encouragement and let them see the facts as they are."

Problems the church faces are not due to detractors but are rather the product of its success as membership approaches the 10 million mark.

"We have two great problems facing us as the church grows so rapidly. One is the development of leaders; two is the construction of buildings to accommodate our people, and we're working very vigorously at each, building about 350 new buildings a year and we've got to build more to accommodate the growth.

"When all is said and done," he said, growth "is a wonderful problem."

President Hinckley has engaged in a vigorous campaign to make his ministry to the church both personal and global, traveling across the United States and to nine foreign countries this year alone. It's a campaign he hopes to continue with visits in the coming months planned to Mexico, Africa and the islands of the Pacific.

"We go as fast as we can go doing what we think we ought to do: meeting with the people, sharing our faith, our testimonies, giving encouragement, expressing appreciation for the great faith and faithfulness. We have marvelous people out there, all over this world."

Regardless of how church members see themselves and the church portrayed, "Our responsibility is simply to live the gospel," President Hinckley said. "We just need simple, everyday living of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We need to live more neighborly. We need to be a neighborly people, a friendly people, a people who are loved and honored and respected for our decency, the values which we hold. We don't need to indulge in self-righteousness, none of that kind of thing. We just need to be Latter-day Saints."